Is Hells Gate geo-power a blessing or curse?


It is famed for its scenery and narrow break in the cliffs, once a tributary of a pre-historic lake that fed early humans in the Rift Valley.

It is one of the smallest parks and only breeding place for vultures. Hells Gate National Park is also home of geothermal power in Kenya.

It is the combined nature of the 68 square kilometres park frequented by more than 100,000 tourists yearly, according to the latest statistics from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS)  that puts its lifeline in doubt.

National power producer, Kengen has embarked on the construction of the largest geothermal project as the country moves to initiate green energy projects to cut its dependence on hydro and thermal power which has seen more geothermal wells being sunk.

The project has seen most parts of the park lose its vegetation while noise from earth-movers has since seen animals move out which pundits aver could end the park’s life.

Hell’s Gate is the only park in the country where tourists can drive, walk and ride on bicycles. It is famed for its annual wheelbarrow race.

Gazetted in 1984, the park which has consistently attracted large numbers of domestic and foreign tourists could soon have its beauty reversed, thanks to the geothermal power production by Kengen.

The park is home to zebras, buffaloes, gazelles, warthogs and giraffes which lure local and foreign tourists. This could soon change as the interest of power generation is likely to outshine their relevance.

The serenity of the park is now disrupted by huge trucks, tens of personnel and gushing sound of hissing smoke from geothermal wells.

In one section of the park, the Government is generating geothermal power, which is expected to significantly lower cost of energy.

The Olkaria power plant and majority of the geothermal wells are located inside the park which has historically been an important home for the rare lammergeyer vultures.

It is also home of over 103 species of birds, which include Verreaux’s Eagles, Augur buzzard and swifts.

A study has established that the number of wildlife in the neighbouring Kedong has dropped by over 30 per cent with indications the numbers are higher inside the park.

According to Simon Thomset from Hells Gate park management committee, geothermal exploration is endangering bird species.

Human beings and livestock are also exposed to health hazards as  the Government aims to add an extra 5,000MW to the national grid by 2017.

Mr Thomset, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years, says the population of birds in the park is decreasing at an alarming rate.

“We used to have five species of vultures here, but only one is left and their number is less than ten,” he says.

He adds:  “Hells Gate is a protected park but we are afraid the ongoing geothermal exploration is making things worse for animals.”

Olkaria geothermal field is subdivided into sectors that include Olkaria East (Olkaria I), Olkaria Northeast (Olkaria II), Olkaria West (Olkaria III) and Olkaria Domes (Olkaria IV).

According to Vision 2030 blueprint, Kenya has estimated the national peak demand for electricity at 3,141MW by the year 2014 and 17,000MW by the year 2030.

Thomset notes half of the park is being used for geothermal  projects while the dwindling numbers of wildlife should be protected.

Deny allegations

 He says: “We are losing our national heritage by allowing this exploration in the park as animals here are no longer safe with hundreds of people and vehicles passing through each day.”

But Kengen Geothermal Development manager Godfrey Muchemi is quick to deny allegations that the power generating company is degrading the environment noting that an environmental impact assessment study was done.

“Kengen is committed to protecting the environment and allegations that ongoing works are affecting the environment are farfetched,” he says.

Olkaria has a potential of 1,200MW.  Already geothermal is producing 155MW from the two power plants in Naivasha and extra 12MW from wellheads against a potential of 10,000MW from Rift Valley. “Works on the Olkaria I and IV power plants are at an advanced stage and we expect an extra 280MW by September 2014,” Muchemi says.

According to an environmental impact assessment carried out by APN Biogeohydrotech limited for Akiira One Geothermal Company in Kedong area, animal species are threatened by the human activity.

Clean power

The organisation’s operations director Gabriel Wetang’ula has singled out buffaloes, water bucks, leopards and gazelles’ numbers dropping at an alarming rate. He however notes the number of zebras, eland and dik diks is stable.

He note that the number of zebras and eland is stable as works in the area intensify.

Mr Wetang’ula says the number of some birds like ostrich, vultures and hawks have dropped adding that only baboons have increased.

But KWS lead scientist Charles Musyoki says geothermal is clean power and should have minimal negative impacts to wildlife.

“We carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment and we found areas that needed to be addressed and we have since worked on them in consultation with Kengen,” he said on phone.

According to him, to safeguard vultures and their breeding places; earthwork and drilling near the cliffs have been avoided. “When you visit there, you will see that there is no drilling near the cliffs,” he said.

The National Environment Management director General Geoffrey Wahungu said as lead agency, KWS confirmed the safety of wildlife in the park during and after the drilling.

“We would not have licensed it should KWS have had any reservations,” Wahungu said on phone.

He said among the things that had been emphasised was minimum disturbance of wildlife in the park.

Negative impact

He however said his office recently received a complaint from Nature Kenya, a consortium working for protection of birds and environment over the Olkaria issue. “I am looking at the issues raised and will issue a statement later,” he added.

According to the CEO, Centre for Pastoralists Development Andrew ole Koisamou, the ongoing exploration is a double-edged sword.

 He says the exercise has offered the country the chance to get cheaper and cleaner source of power.

“We have reached a stage where we have to consider what is more important, geothermal power or national parks?” he poses.

 Koisamou notes that apart from the employment and cheap power geothermal has offered, there are fears the projects could have negative impact on the environment.

He says the number of livestock is on the decline due to reduced pasture land.